Cunningham, William John ("Billy")

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CUNNINGHAM, William John ("Billy")

(b. 3 June 1943 in Brooklyn, New York), professional basketball player known for his vertical leap who was a top scorer and rebounder in the 1960s and 1970s, and who later became a winning coach, television commentator, and team owner.

Cunningham grew up in Brooklyn and on his fifth birthday he received a basketball. He ran to the nearest school, three blocks away, and started shooting baskets. "I lived there that summer," he later recalled. "I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there was just something about the game. I loved it instantly." Cunningham attended Erasmus Hall High School and became known as the Kangaroo Kid for his impressive jumping ability. In 1961, his senior year, Cunningham led his team to the city championship and was a high school All-American.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) coach Frank McGuire convinced Cunningham to enroll there. Cunningham arrived in Chapel Hill just as Dean Smith was taking over as the head basketball coach of the UNC Tar Heels. At six feet, seven inches tall and 220 pounds, Cunningham was a consistent scorer and fierce rebounder. During a game in 1963 against Clemson University, he grabbed a record twenty-seven rebounds. Against Tulane University on 10 December 1964, he set a UNC record by scoring forty-eight points. He was twice named an All-American during his collegiate years. In his final season, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. For his college career he averaged 24.8 points per game and set a school record with 1,062 rebounds.

In 1965 Cunningham graduated from UNC and was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. In his rookie season of 1965–1966 Cunningham was at first assigned to be a guard, then switched positions, becoming a small forward. Averaging 14.3 points per game, Cunningham was named to the league's All-Rookie team. In 1966 Cunningham married Sondra; they had two daughters.

In the 1966–1967 season the 76ers were a powerhouse, winning sixty-eight against only thirteen losses and beating the Boston Celtics and San Francisco in the playoffs to win the championship. Some have called the team the greatest of all time. Cunningham could not even crack the starting lineup—which included Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Lucious Jackson, Hal Greer, and Wally Jones—but he averaged 18.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game coming off the bench.

The following season Philadelphia won sixty-two games and the Eastern Division title but lost to the Celtics in the playoffs. Cunningham scored 18.9 points per game. The next year he exploded for 24.8 points per game and 12.8 rebounds and he was named a first-team All-Star. In the 1969–1970 season he averaged a career high of 26.1 points, the fourth highest in the league, and was again selected as an All-Star. In the 1970–1971 season he again was an All-Star starter and finished ninth in the NBA with 23.0 points per game. The next season, the consistent Cunningham scored 23.3 points per game and was selected as an All-Star for the fourth time.

Cunningham played with visible enthusiasm. He was a tough, intense, competitive player who used his intelligence as much as his physical talents. "The beauty part of playing basketball," he once said, "is that your mind is occupied with playing basketball and nothing else, and you're having fun."

After the 1971–1972 season, Cunningham left Philadelphia and the NBA for the rival American Basketball Association (ABA), signing on with the (North) Carolina Cougars. The two teams waged a court battle, each claiming the rights to Cunningham, but the new league won. At Carolina, he was reunited with the coach Larry Brown, who had been a UNC teammate. The Cougars had finished last the previous season, but with Brown and Cunningham inspiring the team, the Cougars finished first. Cunningham led the league in steals with 216 and was fourth in scoring with a 24.1 points-per-game average. He was named Most Valuable Player in the ABA.

In his second season with Carolina, Cunningham was hampered by injuries, but he still managed a 20.5 average in 32 games. In 1974 Cunningham returned to the 76ers. In the twentieth game of the 1975–1976 season, Cunningham's career suddenly and inexplicably ended. While he was dribbling down the court, his knee exploded. He was finished as a player. "In a way the injury made things easy for me," he said later. "I never had to agonize over that decision all athletes face" about when to retire. For his eleven-year career, Cunningham averaged 21.2 points per game. He scored 16,310 points and pulled down nearly 8,000 rebounds. His jersey number "32" was later retired by Philadelphia.

Cunningham returned to Philadelphia in 1977 to become the coach of the 76ers, replacing Gene Shue. He inherited a team of underachievers led by Julius Erving. Knowing he was inexperienced, Cunningham assembled a group of veteran ex-coaches as assistants, including Chuck Daly, who later to become head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Under Cunningham, the team reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1978 and the NBA finals in 1980 and 1982. After acquiring the talented Moses Malone for the 1982–1983 season, Philadelphia won sixty-five regular season games and then the league championship, losing one of thirteen play-off games. They were a winning team the next two seasons but could not repeat as champions, and Cunningham retired after the 1984–1985 season.

Cunningham reached 200, 300, and 400 wins faster than any previous coach in NBA history. Fiery and volatile, he would pace the sidelines, driving his team relentlessly. During his eight seasons as the coach of the 76ers, Philadelphia won 454 regular season games and lost 196. His teams won sixty-six play-off games and lost twenty-nine. On 6 May 1986 Cunningham was elected into the NBA Hall of Fame, as one of its ten initial inductees. In 1996 he was voted one of the top fifty players at the NBA's fiftieth anniversary.

Cunningham was part of a group that helped to secure an NBA franchise for Miami in the late 1980s. He spent several years as one of the owners of the Miami Heat and the team quickly became a contender. In 1997 Cunningham became the expert commentator for the CBS television network's coverage of NBA games. He got kudos for his smooth-sounding, incisive work with the play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton.

Throughout his life, Cunningham excelled at all aspects of the game he loved. As a player, he was fiery yet consistent, pulling down rebounds and scoring points. He was a consummate team player, and he used the same unifying concept and enthusiasm to become a successful head coach. As an owner and commentator, he also made a favorable impression. "I don't know anything he has done that hasn't worked," said the Orlando, Florida, executive Pat Williams. "It's a remarkable life."

There is no full-length biography of Cunningham, but he is mentioned in most authoritative histories of basketball and in several magazine and online profiles. See, for example, Jan Hubbard, ed., The Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia, 3d ed. (2000).

Michael Betzold